Getting Closer

Yesterday was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for space nerds, as Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched another mission to the International Space Station, the sixth of 12 flights the company is contracted to fulfill. Aboard the Dragon spacecraft this time was 4,300 pounds of supplies, experiments, and the first-ever orbital espresso machine, which of course has been dubbed the “ISSpresso.” I have no idea how such a thing is going to work in zero-gravity — it would be very bad to have a cloud of hot steam drifting around the station, I think — but it amuses me to think of such a homey touch being added to our outpost on the edge of the final frontier. Because really, who doesn’t want a nice hot beverage at the end of a long day of exploration and experimentation?

The launch itself was flawless after being pushed back a day due to weather concerns:


However, as inspiring and lovely as that was, the part of the launch that was most interesting (to me at least) ended in a spectacular failure. For the second time, SpaceX attempted to bring the first stage of the Falcon 9 booster rocket back to Earth under its own power and land it on an unmanned sea-going platform.  The idea, if this system can be perfected, is to someday have the boosters return to the launch site and “soft-land,” so they can be easily refurbished, refueled and used again at an enormous cost saving over today’s “use ’em and toss ’em” paradigm. You know, the same thing the space shuttles were supposed to do but never quite managed.

Anyhow, the first try at a powered soft landing back in January ended in a fireball when the rocket came in on an angle and struck the deck of the platform barge, a failure that was later attributed to the vehicle running low on the hydraulic fluid that operated its control fins. For yesterday’s effort, the rocket was equipped with a larger supply of fluid, which helped it reach the target… but unfortunately, it toppled over after touchdown, resulting in yet another “rapid unscheduled disassembly”:

Failure or not, though, I find that video pretty exciting. The rocket is not under remote control during these landing attempts; it’s autonomous, and its downright astounding to me that it found its way to a relatively tiny barge without any human help. The only problem that I can see is that it came down too fast, something that surely can be adjusted on subsequent attempts. Keep in mind that NASA blew up several rockets during the ramp-up to actually flying a man during Project Mercury, and this was only SpaceX’s second try. I’m confident — okay, I’m hopeful — that they can make this work. In part, because reusability has been the goal in spaceflight for decades, and it’s about damn time somebody figures out how to do it, but mostly, to be honest, because I just really like the idea of a rocket landing on its tail like the spaceships in all those old movies from the 1950s. I’ll bet Elon Musk saw all those flicks as a kid, too…

The next attempt will take place as part of the resupply mission scheduled for June.